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Against Democracy: New Preface Paperback – September 26, 2017
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"Challenging and insightful."---Alexander William Salter, Public Choice
"A brash, well-argued diatribe against the democratic system. There is much to mull over in this brazen stab at the American electoral process. . . . [I]n the current toxic partisan climate, Brennan's polemic is as worth weighing as any other." ― Kirkus Reviews
"Important."---Ilya Somin, Washington Post Volokh Conspiracy
"Compelling. . . . This is theory that skips, rather than plods." ― Los Angeles Times
"Against Democracy seems scarily prescient today. Writing well before the twin shocks of the Brexit and the U.S. elections, the Georgetown political scientist makes a powerful case that popular democracy can be dangerous--and, provocatively, that irrational and incompetent voters should be excluded from democratic decision-making. The case for elitism in governance never read so well." ― Zocalo Public Square
"Meticulous [and] crisply written."---Tom Clark, Prospect
"The book makes compelling reading for what is typically a dry area of discourse. This is theory that skips, rather than plods."---Molly Sauter, Los Angeles Times
"Against Democracychallenges a basic precept that most people take for granted: the morality of democracy. . . . Brennan presents a variety of strategies by which the quality of the electorate could be improved, while still keeping it large, and demographically representative. . . . [A] powerful challenge to the conventional wisdom about democracy. . . . [W]orth serious consideration."---Ilya Somin, Washington Post
"Mercilessly well-argued."---Niko Kolodny, Boston Review
"The great temptation of political philosophy is to sacralize politics, and we urgently need work that teaches us not to succumb. In this valuable and bracing book, Jason Brennan challenges comfortable pieties and debunks familiar myths about political life in general and democratic rule in particular. I expect that most readers will find plenty with which to disagree―I certainly do―but also that most will find Brennan's arguments unsettlingly difficult to resist with certainty."―Jacob T. Levy, McGill University
"Against Democracy makes a useful set of challenges to both conventional wisdom and dominant trends in political philosophy and political theory, particularly democratic theory. Engagingly written, it is a lively and entertaining read."―Alexander Guerrero, University of Pennsylvania
- Publisher : Princeton University Press; New Preface ed. edition (September 26, 2017)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 312 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0691178496
- ISBN-13 : 978-0691178493
- Item Weight : 9 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.2 x 1.1 x 7.9 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #193,208 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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I find the book less convincing when it comes to Brennan’s proposed alternative: epistocracy. This is the rule of the knowers; or more precisely, the idea that in some way voting or governing is restricted by some kind of test of knowledge. For example, you only get to vote if you can pass an exam like the citizenship test or everyone gets a vote, but people who can pass such an exam get extra votes. Brennan briefly discusses several possible ways epistocracy might work (and there are many), but without any actual full-blown epistocracies to look at, it is hard to get a feel for just what such a system would really look like and how such a system would actually work. This is hardly Brennan’s fault; there just aren’t any real-world examples to present.
He does discuss some of the epistocratic elements already in place (e.g. Supreme Court) and this helps make things clearer. Nevertheless, I think he might have spent more time fleshing out a few of the more promising alternatives in greater detail. After all, the discussion of epistocracy proper is only one chapter (I would assume Brennan is saving this for his next book.)
Without the more fleshed out alternatives, it is harder to evaluate them and compare them to democracy (which is what Brennan wants us to do). It also makes it harder to determine whether some of the objections raised against epistocracy are answered adequately. For example, I am not sure the demographic objection is satisfactorily met. This is the concern that epistocracy would, given the current demographic realities, disenfranchise individuals that are part of already disadvantaged groups. Brennan’s response boils down to the claim that since epistocracy should yield better policies (especially for such groups, who have been ill served by democracy), these individuals will be better off under epistocracy. This might be true but it sure doesn't seem like it would convince someone deeply concerned about this issue. Of course, that doesn’t show that Brennan is wrong, but it tugs at how deep the perceived value of voting is and that at least from a rhetorical point of view more work needs to be done.
Another practical concern is that Brennan never addresses how we get there from here. What is the realistic path to adopting his vision? If democracies are as incompetent as he convincingly argues, then how do we get democracies to change and implement epistocracy (peacefully)?
Another concern I have, and this runs through a lot of Brennan’s work that I have read, is that he has way more confidence in empirical social science than I tend to think is warranted. I am not denying the value of this science or its importance in making these kinds of arguments. Nevertheless, I think more humility and caution is needed when using it. The empirical data seems to me to be more limited in terms of scope and generalizability than Brennan seems to treat it. That said, he is explicitly cautious at times, just not as much as I think he needs to be.
I am sympathetic to Brennan’s arguments against democracy and for epistocracy. But I worry that's because I am not part of the groups that are disenfranchised by Brennan's proposals: my position in society is not likely to be affected. Would someone in those groups find the view as appealing? Probably not. But, then, such people aren't reading books like these I (and maybe that’s part of the problem).
As a realistic alternative, I don’t think epistocracy will win the day anytime soon. But I think the book has important value in the present forcing us to rethink the way see democracy and by making the case that more epistocratic elements need to be added or strengthened in our republic.
--Most voters are poorly informed about the issues at stake in elections
--Most voters are poorly informed about the candidates they are voting for.
--Most voters understand little or nothing about government. For example, most American voters know little or nothing about the U.S. Constitution.
--People who don't vote are even more ignorant than people who do vote.
--Voters are not just a little bit ignorant. Most voters are shockingly, grossly ignorant.
--Voters have very little incentive to be better informed, so they stay ignorant.
--Liberals and Conservatives are about equally ignorant.
--Well informed voters, left and right, tend to be more moderate. Ignorant voters are more extreme.
--When voters are ignorant, democracies produce bad outcomes, which harm everyone.
--Voting ignorantly in a way that produces bad outcomes should not be considered a universal human right.
--Democracy would produce better outcomes more often if voters were better informed.
--The easiest and fairest way to improve democracy is to exclude the most ignorant voters.
--Fair and non-partisan standardized tests can easily be devised to distinguish informed voters from ignorant voters.
Each of these assertions is carefully documented with high-quality empirical research.
He's also funny and amusing, in many places, unlike most careful writers of "serious" works. That sugar helps the medicine go down.
All of the above could have been said in less than 100 pages. The rest of the book consists of careful consideration of the details and fine points, including rather obscure fine points mostly of interest to other political philosophers. These portions can be skimmed, if desired.
The author, Jason Brennan, favors "epistocracy," rather than democracy. Epistocracy means "rule by the knowledgeable," as opposed to democracy "rule by the people." Brennan does not necessarily favor a strict or rigorous standard for granting the right to vote. He is equally receptive to the prospect that the most ignorant voters could be disqualified from voting. The moderately knowledgeable voter, the average voter, might remain eligible to vote.
The political knowledge that we expect students to learn in the 9th grade might be a pretty good benchmark for earning the right to vote, or to avoid disqualification. By that standard, more than half of current American voters would be disqualified from voting, due to ignorance. For example, very few adult voters understand the balance of powers, the particular roles of each of the three branches of government, and so on. Few know what the Bill of Rights says, and doesn't say. Few understand that The House of Representatives holds the "power of the purse," and so on. The average voter believes that 28% of the federal budget is spent on "foreign aid." The actual figure is a fraction of one percent.
Brennan's most critical argument is that democracy is a tool for managing a government. Democracy can produce good or bad outcomes, just as monarchies, anarchies or dictatorships can produce good or bad outcomes. Although some outcomes are hard to judge, others are are clearly good or bad. For example, a war that causes widespread suffering and death, without any corresponding advantages, is clearly a bad outcome. Yet, in democracies, voters are clearly capable of voting in favor of such bad ideas. Consider the Spanish-American War, for example.
The author does not defend monarchies, anarchies or dictatorships. He freely admits that they often produce bad outcomes. On the other hand, he raises doubts about whether democracies reliably produce good outcomes. Even if they do, it's in everyone's interest for bad outcomes to be kept down to a minimum and for good outcomes to be maximized. This is not possible as long as most voters in democracies are uninformed or misinformed.
Brennan's favorite example is the "War on Terror." The total cost was several trillion dollars, many thousands of innocent citizens in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere died for no good reason, and it's not clear that any terrorist acts were actually prevented. Yet it was popular with voters, and remains so, today. Chances are, it was more popular with ignorant voters than with well-informed voters, though I don't recall that Brennan says so.
The alternate point of view is that voting rights are fundamental human rights. Brennan considers this viewpoint respectfully and thoroughly, but ultimately rejects it. Ignorant voting produces bad outcomes, which harm innocent others, at home and overseas. Brennan argues persuasively that no one has a fundamental human right to harm innocent others by voting without adequate understanding.
Brennan does not overlook the possibility that a knowledge test for voters would be used for unfair and discriminatory purposes, as "literacy tests" were used in the American South to prevent black people from voting. He gives the matter due consideration and concludes that knowledge tests for voters can be developed and administered fairly. He has some good suggestions about how this could be managed.
It doesn't appear that the author unrealistically anticipates popular approval of an epistocratic voting system any time soon. Nevertheless, he has gotten a necessary conversation off to a good start.
On the down side, while not a bulky one the book is at moments so packed with references that it becomes hard to follow the authors point. Moreover, the author sometimes focuses so strongly on providing counter arguments to some particular research or views presented by his colleagues from academia that you have the impression of reading an excerpt from a discussion and not a book.
But overall a good read even for those against unequal voting rights.
Top reviews from other countries
Er sagt, dass es drei große Kategorien von Wählern gibt, von denen nur eine einen gültigen Beitrag liefert. Hobbits wissen und freuen sich, nichts zu wissen. Ihr Input ist schlimmer, als eine Münze zu werfen. Hooligans halten sich trotz der Fakten fest an politischen Positionen. Ihre Stimmen sind festgelegt und verschwendet. Vulkanier analysieren, sind offen für neue Quellen und können überzeugend andere Seiten einschlagen. Sie suchen die Korrektur, um nicht irrtümlich zu erscheinen.
Brennans Lösung ist eine Epistokratie. Die Epistokratie ist eine Sammlung der hellsten Vulkanier. Sie müssen einen Test bestehen: Wirtschaft, Einwanderung, Umwelt - alles. Nur sie dürfen wählen. Es hält die Politik von den Massen fern und führt (in Brennans Theorie) zu einer effektiveren Regierung.
Das Hauptproblem der Epistokratie ist heute sichtbar. Der Oberste Gerichtshof besteht aus neun Personen: gebildet, klug, scharf, jenseits von Politik (theoretisch) oder Bestechung. Dennoch kommen sie vorhersehbar jedes Mal auf ideologische Seiten. Die meisten von ihnen können zu Hause bleiben, weil wir wissen, wie sie abstimmen werden. Alles, was wir wirklich brauchen, ist, von dem Wechselwähler zu hören. Das ist Epistokratie bei der Arbeit.
Das andere Problem ist, dass die Demokratie nie als das wirksamste System gedacht war. Es ist wie bei der Post: Es war nie beabsichtigt, profitabel zu sein, es war ein Dienst, der das Land zum Wohle aller vereint hat. Mit der Demokratie also, sie gibt den Wählern das Gefühl der Zugehörigkeit und der Veränderung. Die Epistokratie befasst sich mit Lösungen, die die Demokratie nie erreichen wollte. Brennan hat Recht: Die Mathematik für die Demokratie funktioniert nicht. Aber es ist nicht dazu bestimmt.
Es gibt zwei gute Gründe, gegen die Demokratie zu lesen. Brennan ist eine Herausforderung. Er greift die heiligen Fundamente furchtlos, logisch und gründlich an. Du bist immer auf der Suche nach Fehlern, Schlupflöchern und Meinungsverschiedenheiten. Und er ist direkt. Besonders gefallen mir seine Kritiken an anderen Behörden. Er kommt einfach raus und sagt, dass sie sich irren. Und dann sagt er dir, warum. Es ist nicht mit "Ich muss ein Problem lösen" oder "Sie könnten hier einen Punkt übersehen" gekennzeichnet. Sie sind immer wieder falsch. Das ist erfrischend von einem Philosophen.
Die grundlegende Schwierigkeit, die ich bei Brennans Suche habe, ist, dass sie die Wahrheit sucht. Wähler tun das nicht. Sie wählen, wen sie wollen, nicht, was richtig oder am besten ist. Es gibt keine Analyse, keine Begegnung der Köpfe, keine fundierte Entscheidung. Also ja, unsere Demokratie ist meist vorgetäuscht. Die Wähler sind nicht qualifiziert zu entscheiden, und nichts, was sie entscheiden, wird das Ergebnis ohnehin beeinflussen. Es ist nur ein Opium. Was an Brennans ganzer These falsch ist, ist, dass ich ihn vielleicht nicht in der Epistokratie haben will.